October 12, 2012 - 5:34 pm

On Tuesday, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published its newest findings on the religiously unaffiliated or "nones".

The study finds that nearly 20 percent of Americans are unaffiliated. What's more, they grew up with religion  and now are unaffiliated (74 percent), aren't looking for a religion (88 percent) and feel religion has no place in politics (67 percent). In short: they are happy without religion and don't want it imposed on them.

That's why so much of the discussion surrounding the release of this study was so disturbing. In two separate press conferences, the experts and panelists presenting the study fielded questions about how religious communities could "minister" to the unaffiliated and lead them to religion. They wanted to know what specifically they should do to reach out to the nones. How and where they should approach them.... "at the mall?" On the street "in Georgetown?"

The researchers and expert panelists that appeared with them, tended to marginalize the percentage of nones that are atheist and agnostic, noting that nonbelievers are still a "small minority." They repeated often that the findings don't show that the unaffiliated are "hostile to religion" and that the findings don't mean the nones are completely secular. In other words, religious people shouldn't panic.

In response to a question about why the nonreligious aren't interested in religion, one expert played up the idea that many have practical difficulties that prevent them from attending church, such as having to work (15 percent). In reality, the much larger chunk (59 percent) gave reasons that related to religion itself, such as "don't agree with religion", "hypocrisy", and "church corrupt".

Even worse, when asked from a political perspective how the nones could be reached by politicians, Mike McCurry, Bill Clinton's former White House press secretary, and current Washington-based communications consultant, went so far as to insinuate that the unaffiliated are just wishy-washy types. McCurry, who was one of the expert panelists invited by the Pew Research center to speak about the study on Tuesday, went on to say that it would be much easier to reach the nones if they could be encouraged to find a church first. That's right: nones should join a church to make it easier for politicians to reach out.

"How do you reach them? Because they may not be as politically active. They may be as un-formed on the question of politics as they are on religion," McCurry said. "A lot of the nones will be found and ministered to, and that's good news."

Good news for who? The 88 percent of nones who say they aren't seeking a religion?

Reporter Jamila Bey, asked the panel to address the insinuations often made by politicians that a god belief is a necessary component for American patriotism and that perhaps that is what is disenfranchising the religiously unaffiliated from greater participation in the political process.

"I don't think they're being told they're un-American," McCurry said, but then went on to make Bey's point for her. "We remain a religious country. We were founded that way. It's part of our DNA. It's part of who we are as Americans."

All the while the larger point was completely missed. The nones are non-affiliated not because they "haven't found a religious home", but because they don't want a religious home. They aren't concerned about missing out on the feeling of community religious communities claim to provide, because only 28 percent think a "shared community" is important.

Rather than attempting to truly understand why the religiously unaffiliated are happy to be unaffiliated, the focus was on what "went wrong" and how the nones could be converted. The data was dissected through the prism of those who view lack of religious affiliation as a problem that needs to be corrected.

If the point of the study was to better understand why Americans are becoming increasingly less religious, then listen to what the "nones" are actually saying. If politicians really want to reach out nones, they must stop looking at us as though we're a confused, intellectually "un-formed" demographic that must be converted or preached to.

Instead recognize that most nones didn't wind up irreligious out of laziness-it was something most of us thought hard about and consciously decided. It's time to listen-really listen to our real concerns-which greatly include keeping religion out of politics.

August 29, 2012 - 4:19 pm

Two weeks ago a gunman opened fire at the offices of the Family Research Council, a right wing group that lobbies against marriage equality, supports the unscientific definition of life as beginning at conception, and pushes a false definition of "religious liberty."

After the shooting, the Secular Coalition for America condemned the shooting, along with many other nontheist and gay rights groups, many of which are diametrically opposed to the mission of the FRC. We believe the debate surrounding the role of religion in the public sphere should be fought with reason and logic, not guns.

Unfortunately, the FRC and other like-minded groups are using the attack by a lone gunman to further their misguided claim of a "war on religion."

The American Family Association, a conservative evangelical group said about the shooting, "The left's war on religion and Christianity has now gone from symbolic to literal."

Earlier this week Kelly Shackelford, President and CEO of Liberty Institute, and Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council, officially released "The Survey on Religious Hostility" in and launched an  interactive website at www.religioushostility.org, which compiles "more than 600 cases of religious hostility" that have occurred in the last decade. 

There are some harsh realities here, and none of them are in line with the message the religious right groups are attempting to sell. The true attack taking place in this country is the one being waged on America's secular founding principles by groups such as the FRC. In fact, the FRC is classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a "hate group."

And those "600 cases of religious hostility"? In reality the FRC's 140 page document largely details thwarted attempts by the religious right to impose their religion on others in the public square or obtain privileging or exemptions from the government.

For example page 84 of the report details, "For thirty-five years, Jackson County, Alabama, invited ‘Bible Man' to visit its schools and share Bible stories with elementary school students." In 2012, a law suit was filed and now "Bible Man" can no longer come to public elementary schools to indoctrinate young children on the taxpayers' dime. 

In most of these examples individuals and organizations fought to protect their First Amendment rights to religious freedom-and won. If we are to believe the FRC, anyone who does not want religion imposed on them in the public square is "attacking religion" or exhibiting "religious hostility."

True attacks on religious freedom include examples, such as the attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin earlier this month. This attack resulted in the death of six people peacefully worshiping by a lone white supremacist gunman that opened fire on worshipers.

The reactions from the FRC and other religious right groups in the days after the shooting at the FRC's offices were disturbing. Instead of blaming the shooting on a lone crazed gunman, they chose to politicize it and blame "the left" for a so-called "war on religion and Christianity." Sadly, this type of dog whistle rhetoric is exactly what whips followers into a frenzy and causes the type of violence experienced at the FRC.

A 2011 article in the Daily Beast read, "For the last thirty years, conservative activists in particular have been quick to grasp the potential of apocalyptic rhetoric, forever reminding their listeners of the terrible threats posed by ‘militant gays,' ‘liberal educators,"' ‘baby killers,' and ‘godless politicians.' As Terry Dolan of the National Conservative PAC told an interviewer way back in 1978, the whole point was to "make them angry." "We are trying to be divisive," he explained. "The shriller you are, the better it is to raise money.""

For example, in 2009 Dr. George Richard Tiller was murdered. Tiller operated one of only three clinics nationwide that provided abortions after 21 weeks of pregnancy, after years of charged rhetoric directed at him by the religious right. Tiller was discussed in at least 28 episodes of the O'Reilly Factor, and described frequently as "Tiller the Baby Killer" both on the O'Reilly show, and by Congressman Robert K. Dornan, who had used it on the floor of Congress.

Talk radio, which is almost exclusively conservative, is filled with hateful rhetoric.  A study on talk radio showed that 91 percent of total weekday talk radio programing was conservative-resulting in 10 times as much conservative talk as progressive talk. That talk radio has a very real and very dangerous result-it increases hatred toward minorities.

A study released in August 2012 by the National Hispanic Media Coalition and UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, "Social Networks for Hate Speech", analyzed the themes and content of "The Rush Limbaugh Show," "The Sean Hannity Show," "The Glenn Beck Program," "The Savage Nation" and "The John and Ken Show." The study found that listening to conservative talk radio directly contributes to hatred against minority groups-including gays.

"This social network targets vulnerable groups in content that is spread across affiliated social media web sites. The result is an echo-chamber of voices, both online and off, that promotes hatred against ethnic, racial, religious groups and the LGBT community on social media web sites," National Hispanic Media Coalition President and CEO Alex Nogales told Fox News Latino.

Somehow we are to believe that when charged rhetoric-sometimes forthright in its hatred, and other times coded or thinly veiled-comes from the religious right it is justified language that causes no harm, because it's supporting the so-called "word of God"-or at least their version of it. But when organizations peacefully speak out against a religious right organization that is officially classified as a "hate group" for its use of explosively offensive language, they are the ones to blame.  

There is no "war on religion." If only the FRC and like-minded groups would tone down the rhetoric, then and only then can we have rational discussions regarding the real issues our country faces as it relates to questions of religion in the public square. But perhaps rational discussion is precisely what they aim to avoid.

August 21, 2012 - 11:13 am

The past causes the present and the present causes the future. 

That in a nutshell explains the importance of history to our lives. Studying history helps us understand how we came to be where we are. It helps us map our future by comparing our paths to the successes and failures of past civilizations.

So when those posing as historians pass off blatant falsehoods as legitimate history-and people actually begin to believe it-we should be very alarmed.

Unfortunately Americans throughout the country are being fed a false version of history that attempts to downplay bedrock American values like the separation of church and state, and teaches instead that the United States was founded as a "Christian nation."

These lies come largely from David Barton, a self-proclaimed historian who holds a bachelor's degree in "Christian education" from Oral Roberts University-an evangelical college that teaches students to insert their religion into their professional lives. (Rep. Michele Bachmann-the only 2012 presidential candidate to receive an "F" grade in every category in the Secular Coalition's Scorecard-is also an Oral Roberts alumnus.)

In an ironic twist, Barton's book "Jefferson Lies" was recently pulled by its publisher after it found that "basic truths just were not there." In the book Barton claimed that Jefferson was an orthodox Christian who started church services at the Capitol. He also claims the Founding Fathers were deeply religious and based the Constitution on the Bible-even directly quoting from it at times.

Among some of Barton's False Claims debunked by historians:

  • America was founded as an explicitly "Christian nation."
  • The "wall of separation" between religion and government was meant to protect the church from religion, but not to keep religion out of government.
  • The Founding Fathers debunked the scientific theory of evolution and Thomas Paine said, "You've GOT to teach creation science in the classroom. Scientific method demands that." (Charles Darwin had not yet been born.)
  • The Constitution quotes the Bible extensively. Barton said, "You look at Article 2, the quote on the president has to be a native born? That is Deuteronomy 17:15, verbatim."
  • Congress published the first American Bible in 1782.
  • Congress intended for the first American Bible to be used in public schools.
  • Jefferson was "not a secularist", he was a devout orthodox Christian.
  • Jefferson started church services at the Capitol.
  • Jefferson ordered the Marine Corps band to play at the Capitol church services.
  • Jefferson funded a treaty to evangelize the Kaskaskia Indians.
  • Most Founding Fathers had Bible or seminary degrees.

"It's what I would call historical reclamation," Barton told NPR. "We're just trying to get history back to where it's accurate. If you're going to use history, get it right." Get it right, indeed.

In reality, he is attempting to rewrite history into a version compatible with modern evangelical views, and to use those views to transform our secular government into a religious one. "I don't care what the Supreme Court says," Barton said in a recent NPR story. "God has made it clear what is right or wrong in his scripture."

In the same story, John Fea, chairman of the history department at evangelical Messiah College said Barton is a danger because he's using a skewed version of the past to shape the future.

"He's in this for activism," Fea told NPR. "He's in this for policy. He's in this to make changes to our culture."

That is precisely what Barton aims to do. Barton is selling his message to supportive politicians-like Sen. Marco Rubio and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee-who in turn use his junk history to push a false message of "religious liberty" and encourage Americans to question the validity of our country's core secular values.

"I almost wish that there would be like a simultaneous telecast," said Mike Huckabee, according to the NPR story. "And all Americans will be forced, forced - at gunpoint, no less - to listen to every David Barton message. And I think our country will be better for it."

If you're not frightened yet, you should be.

While the tactics are slightly different, some of his goals are eerily similar to those of Becky Fischer, a Pentecostal children's pastor featured in the 2007 documentary "Jesus Camp": indoctrinate children into evangelical Christianity and instruct them to insert their religious beliefs into every sphere of their public, personal and professional lives.  

Children are "so usable in Christianity...if you look at the world's population one third of the world's 6.7 billion are children under the age of 16. Where should we be putting our efforts? I'll tell you where are enemies are putting it. They're putting it on the children," she said. "Those young people are ready to kill themselves for the cause of Islam. I want to see young people who are as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ as the young people are to the cause of Islam[...]because we have... excuse me, but we have the truth!"

With Barton's help in 2010, the Texas Board of Education rewrote its history books to minimize the roles of founders like Thomas Jefferson and teach school children that America was founded as a Christian nation.

NPR reported, "Barton later said on the cable talk show Chapter and Verse that it would take another 16 or 18 years before kids go through the entire curriculum, ‘then another 10 years after that before those kids get elected to office and start doing things. So we're talking 30 years from now. But, it's in the pipe coming down.'"

That's a scary thought considering that already the majority of Americans think there's too much religion in politics. Even scarier is that in public schools paid for with taxpayer money, religious dogma is being passed off as history and taught to children. This is being done with the express purpose of undermining and manipulating basic understandings of our country's history and brainwashing kids into later imposing that dogma on our secular society.

If the "war on religion" is being waged with false information it's more important than ever that the truth about our country's history is not overshadowed by lies.

Those who don't view this religiously-steeped junk history as a very real threat to American society should be forewarned: those who wish to impose their religion on us do. And they're playing the long game.  

 

July 27, 2012 - 4:39 pm

The number of "nones"-religiously unaffiliated Americans-is growing.

In fact, at 19 percent nones have reached an all-time high, up from 6 percent in 1990, and 16 percent just two short years ago. The newest number comes from the Pew Research Center, which based the count on aggregate surveys conducted throughout 2011.

Of course, not all of the nones are nontheists-although nontheists are included in the group, those who identify expressly as atheists or agnostics make up about 5 percent of the American population. 

The growing number of Americans who don't affiliate with any religion places an even greater emphasis on the importance of a strong separation of religion and government. That is because as a group unaffiliated Americans overwhelmingly support secularism.

The religiously unaffiliated stand out as the religious group most inclined to think that religious conservatives have too much political sway-particularly within the GOP-with a full 66 percent expressing this view. This is consistent with the 66 percent of unaffiliated Americans who believe the government has much of a role in "protecting morality".

Yet despite the growth of secular Americans, the political clout of the Religious Right has steadily expanded and is now manifesting itself in often overt attempts to insert religion and religious privileging into law. These attempts focus on everything from religiously-infused laws that attempt to block women's reproductive rights, to discrimination toward gays and lesbians. (Nones overwhelming support women's choice with 70 percent in favor, and societal acceptance of homosexuality with 71 percent in support.)

According to the Pew Forum, full 60 percent of white evangelical Christians say that churches and other houses of worship should express their views on social and political issues. That's in direct contrast to the  54 percent of Americans in general, that believe churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters.

With each new attempt at passing a religiously-infused law, nearly one in five Americans is being disenfranchised. In fact, at 19 percent nones are now more than triple the combined population of American Jews, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, according to prior studies conducted by Pew.

The consistently expanding growth of the "nones" shows the importance of educating lawmakers at the state and federal level on issues of separation of religion and government.  

May 8, 2012 - 12:56 pm

We live in scary times. The rise of the Religious Right has created a co-mingling of religion and government that has been steadily increasing since the 1970s.

Some of the politicians that have risen from this movement want to insert their particular brand of religion into secular laws—at both the state and federal level. While mixing religion and politics is almost always unconstitutional, it has gotten to a point where it’s spiraling completely out of control.

We have seen a slew of laws being introduced across the country that affect everything from contraception and women’s health care access, to religious exemptions in bullying laws, to laws that discriminate in adoptions. These pieces of legislation attempt to insert religion into our secular laws. We see a mobilized Religious Right opposing all sorts of science-based ideas and research on things such as stem cell research, and dragging down the American public education system by attempting to teach intelligent design in public schools rather than the scientific theory of evolution, insisting on abstinence only sex education, and discouraging funding for schools that don’t comply with their religious agenda.

For example, earlier this year former U.S. Senator and Republican presidential candidate, Rick Santorum, criticized college because he said college students lose their "faith commitment."  He also wanted to decrease taxpayer support for public schooling in favor of homeschooling—which some groups of conservative Christians believe is best because their children won’t be introduced to science-based ideas that conflict with their religious beliefs.
 
Some say the Republican Party has been hijacked by the Religious Right. And it’s easy to see why this sentiment prevails—especially within the secular movement. After all, the Religious Right seems to be closely affiliated with the Republicans, and many secularists wonder why we should “waste time” trying to include, persuade or reason with a party that seems to have aligned itself against the very thing we aim to protect and strengthen: the separation of religion and government.
 
However, that is the very reason we must reach across the aisle. While the Religious Right may represent a faithful voting bloc—and therefore hold a disproportionate amount of power within the party—they do not represent all who identify as Republican.

In 2000, about 14 percent of the electorate identified itself as part of the "Christian Right," with 79 percent of this sector voting for George W. Bush. A new analysis shows that the share of voters identifying with or leaning toward the GOP has either grown or held steady in every major religious group. But the GOP is not comprised of only conservative Christians. Another recent study found that 34 percent of Republicans (and 51 percent of the general public) agree that religious conservatives have too much control over the GOP. And a full 44 percent of Republicans believe the Church should keep out of politics.

While individual nontheists may identify as liberals, conservatives, libertarians, independents, among others, the nontheist movement as a whole is associated with the Left in the minds of many.  As a result, we haven’t been able to reach quite a few on the conservative side who are either nontheists, or who may be receptive to the secular agenda. And there are quite a few. Nearly 30 percent of “nones”—people who do not identify with any religious affiliation—identify as Republican. 

Between the Republican “nones” and the 34 percent of Republicans that don’t like where the Religious Right is taking their party-- that’s a lot of people we’re missing if we work with only the other side. Not to mention that legislators tend to be a bit more motivated to introduce satisfactory legislation and fight harder for your vote when there is legitimate competition for it—rather than paying empty lip service to a voting bloc they know is not going anywhere. One needs look no further than President Obama backing off his promise to end discrimination in the hiring of government-funded positions by religious organizations, or his hosting of in the annual Prayer Breakfast, to see that politicians on both sides are angling for religious votes.

The reality is, no matter where you fall on immigration, taxes, foreign affairs, crime—it does not affect the principles of secularism and the constitutional value of separating religion from government. Secular values should be shared by all, regardless of where you fall on everything else.

We do ourselves a disservice when we actively attempt to align ourselves with only one party. Of course, we may naturally gravitate toward one side or the other, but we must remember that most people are not single issue voters.  That is to say that when they go into the voting booth, they are not voting solely on their beliefs on religion (or any one issue). They may be put off by the religious rhetoric of a particular candidate, but are more concerned about immigration policy, for instance, and vote for a religiously-affiliated candidate anyway.

It’s our job as a movement to make voters see the importance of voting based on secular issues. We should never give up on creating relationships and building coalitions where ever we can.

As a movement, and in the case of the Secular Coalition, an advocacy and lobbying organization, it must be our goal to make secular viewpoints transcend party lines—a concept especially important when we remember that the political tide is always only one election away from possibly turning in the other direction.  What a shame it would be to lose 2, 4, 6, 8 years—or more, because we are waiting for “our side” to be elected or reelected, before we were able to join the conversation or enact legislation of our own. And even then, is it guaranteed?

Having relationships on both sides of the aisle ensures that no matter who is elected, we will have a seat at the table. And if we have a place in both parties, we can even help temper the influence of those with more radical and religiously extreme views—pulling the party back toward the center.

We often say that secular values are American values because they represent the principles our country was founded upon and the vision our founders had for this nation. And that’s the truth. These values belong to all of and should never belong to any one party.
 
If we want to succeed as a movement, we cannot focus on partisanship, but instead, on pragmatism. If we want our message and values to be widespread and universally socially accepted and valued, we can't focus our message on only certain groups. When we have relationships with both sides, we will begin to have real and lasting power to effect change in legislation. 

When we can successfully do that, we will not only be able to combat the horribly egregious issues we are seeing pop up from state to state around the country, but we will also have helped protect the very values our forefathers intended for us when they founded this great nation.

April 17, 2012 - 11:59 am

Last week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a proclamation that called for every priest, parish and layperson to participate in a "great national campaign" to "defend religious liberty", which they said is "under attack, both at home and abroad." In fact, there are more than 100 upcoming “religious freedom” rallies scheduled nationwide.

True religious freedom is the ability to practice your religion and hold your religious beliefs, as long as those beliefs and practices do not infringe upon the religious freedom others, break the laws of the country we live in, or expect special government privileging. The secular character of our government is the best guarantee of the freedom for people of all religions to protect this right—whether they are Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, or any other religion —or non-religion. 

The truth is that religious liberty does not mean that the government should excuse any person or organization from following the law based on their religion, nor does it mean that the government should fund any religious group that uses the funding to further its religious agenda. Religious institutions are not above the law, nor are they entitled to special treatment or funding.

To push its massive attack on true religious liberty, the USCCB is pushing a false definition of religious freedom—and it will be massive.

"This is bigger in that it's not a one-time thing, not aiming for a specific Sunday" said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the communications director for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in a CNN article. "It's going to be extensive and it's going to be occurring over a few years."

In a statement, the USCCB cited seven examples of what they say are violations of religious freedom. One of the complaints took issue with the federal government for refusing to reauthorize a grant to a Catholic organization that was supposed to serve the victims of sex trafficking but refused to provide or refer the victims to services for abortion and birth control. In other words, they are complaining that they lost a government contract, after they refused to provide the very people they were supposed to be helping, with the necessary care.

In its statement, the USCCB also complained that some states are cutting off contracts to Catholic agencies that discriminate in state adoptions. They also complained about the HHS regulation that religious institutions are not exempt from offering insurance coverage that includes contraception care. Not only did the USCCB complain that they were held to the same laws that secular organization are held to—they feel the government should fund Catholic organizations even if they break the laws of the land.

Catholics for Choice agrees. In a recent statement, they wrote, "[The USCCB] have sought to redefine religious liberty so that it is limited to policies and issues that they support, and in order for them to get their way, they are happy to deny the religious liberty of those who wish to be free from the dictates of the US bishops…The bishops' idea of 'religious liberty' proposes that one narrow interpretation of one religious tradition should be allowed to run roughshod over the religious beliefs of every single American."

The Supreme Court ruled on this over 130 years ago. In its 1878 decision on Reynolds vs. the United States, the Supreme Court took up the question of whether the government's laws overruled religious belief and found that they did.  The decision read, in part, "Can a man excuse his practices to the contrary because of his religious belief? To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself. Government could exist only in name under such circumstances."

And subsequent rulings have been in agreement with the court’s original decision.

In the 1986 case, Bowen v. Roy, the court ruled that “Free exercise clause does not require Government to conduct its internal affairs in ways that comport with the religious beliefs of particular citizens.”

 In 1990, in the case of Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, the court’s decision read, “…the right of free exercise does not relieve individual of obligation to comply with valid or neutral law of general applicability on ground that law proscribes, or requires, conduct that is contrary to his religious practice, as long as law does not violate other constitutional protections.”

The Supreme Court knew then that religious liberty doesn't put believers above the law but it seems like there are lot of people in America today who need to be reminded of that, including the USCCB, which believes that “religious freedom” gives it the right to ignore U.S. laws and force its brand of religion on the masses.

The USCCB is asking the government to privilege its particular brand of religion over others, under a smoke screen of religious persecution.  Catholics, like every other religious group, are more than welcome to practice their beliefs—that is one of the cornerstones of this country. However, true religious freedom allows for individuals to make their own decisions. What the USCCB and is trying to do is impose its religion on others—a direct affront to true religious freedom.

March 29, 2012 - 4:58 pm

Last week the Secular Coalition held Lobby Day for Reason—an event that drew 200 nontheistic Americans to Capitol Hill to lobby their representatives on behalf of secular values.

More than 125 meetings were held with Senate and House staffs on both sides of the isle—in fact, the number of scheduled meetings was split almost down the middle between the offices of Democrats and Republicans. After all, secular values are non-partisan—they are uniquely American values.

Participants lobbied their representatives to raise awareness of the secular community, to ask for inclusion by lawmakers, and on religious discrimination in health care law.

As atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers from across the spectrum, it’s important for us to make ourselves known. The prevalence of the Religious Right in politics today demands that we make our voices heard and protect the separation of church and state—which is the best guarantee of freedom of religion for all, including, ironically, those who seek break down that wall.

Lobby Day participants learned the skills they needed to lobby their federal representatives that day, but also took home valuable skills to lobby their local representatives—a task equally as important.

Many of the attacks we see on secular values are happening at the state and local levels. Today 38 percent of current members of Congress served first in local or state offices. Often the federal leaders of tomorrow are most accessible today in state and local positions.

Religion is seeping into every facet of our government from the state level on up and that wall of separation between government and religion that we so treasure is under constant attack.

Lobby Day was an opportunity to show our elected officials that they have nontheistic constituents, and to cement ourselves in their minds as a voting bloc – as well as an opportunity to raise important issues to the very people responsible for setting the legislative agenda for our country.

It was an amazing start—but it’s just the beginning. As secular Americans we need to keep making ourselves known, keep voting, keep raising issues and keep fighting to protect the separation of government and religion.

 

You can read some of the press coverage we received on Lobby Day and for our participation in the Reason Rally, here.

February 29, 2012 - 6:00 pm

Note: This posting has been updated to reflect a statement released by the Romney campaign.

Tomorrow the U.S. Senate is likely to vote on the Blunt amendment--an amendment introduced by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) that would allow employers to exclude any insurance benefit they deem immoral or “contrary to their religious beliefs.”

If passed, this amendment would allow employers to force their beliefs on employees, stripping them of their personal rights to religious freedom—and the ability to make their own moral and health decisions.

So, we were glad to hear that Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, today came out against the amendment.

“I’m not for the bill. But, look, the idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a woman, husband and wife, I’m not going there,” he told Jim Heath, a reporter for ONN-TV in Ohio, as reported in the Washington Post.

Sen. Blunt’s amendment is dangerous. It could pave the way for insurers to deny coverage for anything from mental health coverage to addiction treatment—as these services are opposed by some religious groups. 

If you haven't yet contacted your senator, there's still time before the vote! Contact your senator now.

UPDATE: Governor Romney's campaign released a statement clarifying Romney's position on the Blunt Amendment. In it, a campaign spokesperson said, "Governor Romney supports the Blunt Bill because he believes in a conscience exemption in health care for religious institutions and people of faith." The position of the Secular Coalition for America is that this amendment would allow employers to impose their religious beliefs on their employees and sets a dangerous precedent for defining "religious liberty." Please urge your Senators to vote NO on the Blunt Amendment by participating in our Action Alert. 

February 23, 2012 - 5:41 pm

The Virginia state legislature is ruffling a lot of feathers recently—and heavily blurring the line between religion and government.

First, it passed a bill that would bar same-sex couples from adopting children—specifically it would allow state-funded faith-based agencies to turn away potential adoptive parents based on the adoptive parents’ sexual orientation or the agencies’ written religious policies.

Then, Republican lawmakers passed a “personhood” bill that would define life as beginning at conception—a move that could outlaw contraceptives and a definition for which there is no scientific consensus.

On the same day, another bill was passed that would require all women seeking abortions in the state of Virginia to have a transvaginal ultrasound before the procedure. The procedure is extremely invasive and usually medically unnecessary. Besides requiring an uncomfortable, unnecessary, and unwanted medical procedure, the bill’s goal seems to be to shame women into making a different decision that the state deems more morally acceptable.

These efforts in Virginia are lightly veiled—and sometimes blatant—insertions of theology into the state’s secular law. The Secular Coalition has been fighting against the efforts in Virginia and similar legislative efforts elsewhere.

Earlier this month the Secular Coalition urged our supporters in Virginia to reach out to their state representatives in opposition to the law that would add the religious refusal clause to Virginia’s child placement laws. Despite all efforts, the bill passed.

In November, we urged our supporters to vote against a Mississippi “personhood” ballot initiative very similar to the bill proposed in Virginia. The people of Mississippi overwhelmingly voted it down. Similar initiatives were voted down twice in Colorado.

What’s going on in Virginia represents just a few incidents in what has become an onslaught of religiously tinged legislation being rammed through state legislatures. Last week Oklahoma approved “personhood” legislation of its own, and the required ultrasound-before-abortion laws—much like the one in place in Texas—seem to be cropping up all over. Seven states now require abortion providers to perform ultrasounds on women seeking an abortion.

It’s a disturbing trend. Overzealous legislators pushing a top-down agenda that is both religious and imposing in nature—stripping citizens of their individual liberties, as well as the right to define their own personal moral, religious, and health beliefs and choices. 

Even more alarming is that after many of these efforts—such as the “personhood” initiatives—have been repeatedly turned down by even the most conservative voters, they are now being forced on the constituents by legislators. A recently released poll showed that 55 percent of Virginians are against the transvaginal ultrasound measure and only 36 percent support it.

It’s the lawmakers’ jobs to represent the voters, not to impose their particular brand of morality on the citizens. Instead, they are coming off like patronizing parents setting down rules for their children, rather than a body of public servants elected to represent the will of the people.

After receiving a lot of pressure—including 1,000 people lined up on the steps of the state Capitol in silent protest—Virginia lawmakers backed off slightly – the transvaginal ultrasound bill has been amended; it will still require an ultrasound, but not a transvaginal one. However, this doesn’t solve the larger problem the bill represents or the other troublesome pieces of legislation the Virginia statehouse has put forth. And as we’re seeing, it won’t solve the similar issues popping up around the country.

Legislators need to recognize that their personal beliefs are just that—personal. If they truly care about the positions they were elected to fulfill, they’d show a greater respect for the state Constitutions and the U.S. Constitution, respectively, they took an oath—or affirmed—to uphold.

February 16, 2012 - 5:39 pm

In the last few weeks the issue of religious liberty has exploded nationally.

The spark that lit the flame was the implementation of the Department of Health and Human Services’ rule requiring that all employers include contraceptive services coverage in the health insurance they provide to employees.

While the rule did offer a narrow exemption to houses of worship, it did not extend to religiously affiliated organizations such as hospitals, universities, and social service programs.

These organizations and religious leaders claimed that their religious freedom was being infringed upon. So, the Obama administration made a concession: Instead of requiring religious employers to provide contraceptive services to their employees, the employees would be able to get it directly from the insurance provider. This cut the religious institutions out of the picture, while preserving employees’ access to these services.

Problem solved, right? Unfortunately not.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has promised to fight the Obama administration on the rule—with federal legislation and in the courts. And the bishops seem to have quite a few allies who aim to put the fight in motion.

Several bills have been introduced in the U.S. Senate, including bills by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have both introduced legislation into the Senate that would allow any employer with a so-called religious objection to refuse contraceptive coverage. And Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said last Friday that no insurance policy should cover birth control.

Thursday the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing titled, “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?” The one-sided hearing offered mostly male witnesses, a majority of who were members of clergy. Democrats—who tried to offer two witnesses on the other side of the issue—were not allowed to do so. (According to the Republicans, the Democrats did not submit qualified witnesses in a timely matter.) Any real discussion about the issue of religious freedom was thwarted, resulting in a one sided “discussion” valuable only for purely political purposes. 

The fact that the USCCB and others are still fighting the rule—even after the change—shows they are more interested in pushing their religious beliefs on others, rather than truly being concerned with preserving their religious liberty as originally claimed.

Real religious freedom allows for individuals to make their own decisions—and what the USCCB and other religious leaders are trying to prevent is a direct affront to that. Prohibiting access to healthcare takes  away the individual’s choice  of conscience and pushes the religious views of the employer on its employees—many of whom don’t even follow the religion of their employer.

The Secular Coalition supported Obama’s shift in policy. While we were not happy that a religious exemption was provided for houses of worship, the ultimate goal of maintaining the individual employees’ rights to make their own moral and religious decisions—instead of being forced to follow the religious dictates of their employers—was maintained.

A New York Times editorial published last week said it best, “Churches are given complete freedom by the Constitution to preach that birth control is immoral, but they have not been given the right to laws that would deprive their followers or employees of the right to disagree with that teaching.” It continued: “If a religious body does not like a public policy that affects its members … it cannot simply opt out of society or claim a special exemption from the law.”
 
While any house of worship or religion has the right in the United States as guaranteed by the Constitution and the First Amendment to tell its members that contraceptives are unacceptable for followers, it is not acceptable to enlist the government’s help in enforcing such religious doctrine. It is not the government’s job to see that people follow religious edicts.  However, it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that there is no discrimination in the provision of necessary and life-saving services—in this case, contraceptive services.

The USCCB is asking the government to privilege its particular brand of religion over others. After all, we don’t allow followers of Rastafarianism to smoke marijuana just because it’s part of their religion. We don’t provide insurance coverage that will only cover hospitals that segregate men and women for Hassidic Jewish institutions. We don’t allow polygamy because it is part of some sects of Mormon fundamentalism. We don’t make special concessions to see that blood transfusions aren’t provided to organizations affiliated with Jehovah's Witnesses. We don't allow Quakers to opt out of paying taxes if those tax dollars go toward paying for war.

The First Amendment to the Constitution is clear, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...”  Religious institutions are not above the law or entitled to special treatment.

This is especially true when the organizations in question accept government funding—as so many religious hospitals, charities and universities do. Religious liberty certainly doesn’t give organizations the right to force their views, through taxpayer dollars, on those with different religious views, or to ignore the law.

Let’s call this debate what it is—an attack on women’s right to control their bodies, not an attack on religious liberty. And if that’s the case, it is a debate that religious leaders should be having with their members—the majority of whom use contraceptives—not a debate with the American public at large and not with the U. S. government.

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